The time capsule of being a teenager spares no family. Each person transitioning into a young adult must reach their peak of ugliness, questioning and uncertainty. The funny thing about life is that even though every parent has succumbed to this inevitability, raising a child through this process still feels like hell on Earth.

Jesse Eisenberg’s When You Finish Saving the World— his directorial debut starring Finn Wolfhard and Julianne Moore and produced by Emma Stone—doesn’t just feel like a crumbled-up diary page from my teenhood but from everyone else’s as well. Throughout the feature, viewers can’t help but mumble, “that was me,” in the best and worst ways. 

In following Eisenberg down the yellow brick road of coming-of-age stories, the plot travels through a dysfunctional mother-and-son relationship. Ziggy Katz (played by Wolfhard), is a teenage musician and streamer with over 20,000 streams—as he would tell you himself—and a presumed fanbase that resonates with his charm and musical capabilities.

Yet, the persona he’s built online is a flick away from crashing down because in real life it’s italicized that he doesn’t know himself. The person he imagines himself to be is way cooler, more imaginative and righteous than his mother, Evelyn Katz (played by Moore), an outreach manager at a homeless shelter. The person he imagines himself as aligns with his school crush, Lila (played by Alisha Boe), a political advocate for environmental change. 

As the Katz family struggles deeply with understanding, many conversations between the mother and son lead to temper tantrums, built-in red sirens and exchanged profanities about each other’s character. They begin to build themselves up through other people. The expectations of who Ziggy and Evelyn believed each other would become meets immense disappointment.

When You Finish Saving the World

Courtesy of A24

Ziggy wants his mother to care about his music and Evelyn yearns to have a son that cares about his mother’s opinion and who she is in general. This leads Evelyn to shift her focus to Kyle (played by Billy Byrk), the loving son of Angie (played by Eleonore Hendricks), a new member of the shelter. Kyle’s different from Ziggy; his personality is outright heartwarming and he’s content with the life he lives. His understanding of life breeds all of the characteristics a son should have and Evelyn takes the opportunity to connect with him.

On the opposite side, Ziggy begins to attend political meetings to spend time with Lila and falls into infatuation with her spoken word performance. Ziggy commits to becoming a political expert on all things oppressive for Lila to respect him. He’s determined to gain her opinion as an intuitive and humble young man that cares about having a political platform. The boy’s version of help means turning Lila’s spoken word poem into a song and eventually a performance for his streamers. 

The intriguing quirk about these characters, specifically about Ziggy and Evelyn, is how they operate from a slightly narcissistic and privileged bubble. Eisenberg sets up a satirical perspective of their privilege as the two family members find solace in two people whose demeanors are so perplexed; filled with emotion and sincerity because they’ve gone through hardships. As a woman of color, Lila shares a different view of the world because the one she absorbs won’t always treat her fairly.

In this era of change, teenagers begin to shed the teachings of their parents in order to stack ideals and feelings of their own. It’s disappointing and it’s gut-wrenching but so far, it’s the only formula we’ve managed to come up with.

Kyle showcases his gratefulness for his mother and a place for sanctuary because of past experiences within his family that led to violence and struggle. Ziggy doesn’t want to understand politics to make an irrefutable change. He wants to understand politics in order to weaponize it against the viewers he has while getting a pat on the back from his crush. Evelyn may mean well when helping Kyle, but her real reasons are also attached to wanting to be recognized as a great mother. She oversteps by believing that her opinions of his future stand taller than his mother’s or even his own on the behalf of her privilege. 

There’s a certain scene that Eisenberg created that touches the center of the story. In this scene, Evelyn and Ziggy share a heart-to-heart inside the smallest car to exist. Evelyn monologues about the little boy Ziggy used to be— a singer of the “Union Made” song and a “little ally” in the words of his mother. This eggshell of a story propositions two things: One is how Evelyn and Ziggy have found themselves at the side of the road all of us have had with our parents. A curb where we, as in the theory of Ziggy, became different people than the ones our parents believed they raised. In this era of change, teenagers begin to shed the teachings of their parents in order to stack ideals and feelings of their own. It’s disappointing and it’s gut-wrenching but so far, it’s the only formula we’ve managed to come up with.

When You Finish Saving the World

Courtesy of A24

The second proposition is that if Ziggy disappeared from the ‘woke’ teachings he was taught, how valuable was it even in Evelyn’s life? One of the first moments in the film with Evelyn shows her on call about a paint job, and one woman comes in to passionately thank her for everything she has done since the woman will be leaving the shelter. They embrace, and automatically after the woman leaves, Evelyn apathetically returns back to her call about the paint.

This leads us to questions like: Does Evelyn always prove to be selfless? Does she completely involve herself in the work she does on the behalf of helping people or because it just makes more sense than being an editor at Rolling Stone? Is she not living in her own bubble? Ziggy and Evelyn’s relationship lives in jagged shards of glass, or well, pieces of stone because they fret to see each other as they see themselves. One and the same. 

Ziggy may not have aged to be as empathetic, compassionate, or selfless as Evelyn intended for him to be, because she may not serve those exact components as well. They believe they do, not because of their actions, but actually, because of the recognition they’d receive. 

Eisenberg uses comedy and obscenely awkward moments of second-hand embarrassment to showcase that these characters don’t have all of the right answers. And neither do we as viewers, or as someone else’s child or guardian. The validity we look for in other people rings a call coming from inside the house that narrows down that these feelings are internal, sometimes parental, and overall, temperamental.

As the film comes to a close, leaving us with an adorable YouTube video of Ziggy when he was little (which left me to question how long this film has been in the works), the mother and son find themselves at her job, parallel to each other. Evelyn finally reviews Ziggy’s music and Ziggy reviews the accolades and work his mother has done throughout her life. They tear away the assertions that each other are villains in their stories. Maybe that’s why Eisenberg titled it When You Finish Saving the World. Maybe it’s about the hero’s journey.

When You Finish Saving the World is in cinemas.

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